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I am a survivor of the child welfare system. Family surveillance is not the solution to poverty.

One visit from the Department of Children and Families gave rise to countless unannounced visits over the years as school staff reported our family to social services for the same reason: homelessness. DCF came to investigate, not to help.

A mother is reflected in the mirror as she cleans her children's room before a visit from a DCF worker at her home in Revere in 2019.Jessica Rinaldi

It wasn’t too long after my family was thrust into homelessness that the Department of Children and Families found out.

The DCF caseworkers who came to our hotel room banged on the front door, demanding entry. They scrutinized every inch of the room and questioned my siblings and me, looking for any sign of child neglect. One visit gave rise to countless unannounced visits over the years as school staff reported our family to social services for the same reason: homelessness. Because of that state policy, DCF came to investigate, not to help, searching for any reason to separate my siblings from one another instead of trying to keep my family together.


When many Americans hear the phrase “family separation,” they think of the US immigration policies that allow border agents to rip children from their parents. What many might not see, however, is another horrific form of family separation, one executed by child protective service agencies.

Many states, such as Massachusetts, New York, and California, define neglect to include an inability to provide a child with adequate food, clothing, and shelter. A family’s struggle to maintain stable housing is interpreted as a form of neglect instead of as a consequence of policy failure.

In the United States, social service agencies receive and investigate reports of child abuse and neglect, totaling more than 3 million children each year. When they deem the children unsafe, they work to place the children with relatives or with foster families. Of the children who are reported to be suffering from abuse and neglect each year, child protective services finds that 620,000 children are victims. Allegations of child neglect encompass 76 percent of these victims.

These investigations disproportionately affect poor communities. A recent American Civil Liberties Union report found that counties with more families living in poverty had higher rates of child welfare investigations. Furthermore, child welfare agencies disproportionately surveil Black families. This is true even when the rate of poverty in a community is low. Black children are twice as likely to be the subject of an investigation as compared to their white counterparts and are more likely to be separated from their families.


While the child welfare system might be designed to protect children, the hunt for child neglect under the current system polices families for their poverty. Instead of providing the resources these families need to escape poverty, the child welfare system subjects them to intense surveillance strategies and the threat of family separation. Social workers can search a family’s home, interrogate neighbors, and strip search and question children during unannounced visits. While these workers are not permitted to enter a home without the equivalent of a search warrant, they often use manipulative and coercive tactics to enter homes without the permission of a judge, according to a ProPublica report. Their tactics sow distrust between families and social service organizations, hindering their ability to assist families in need.

When a poor family seeks out the support of social welfare agencies to alleviate their poverty, in some states that request often brings the wrath of the child welfare complex because these workers are mandated reporters. Therefore, whether families try to provide their children’s basic needs with the assistance of government programs or fail to do so, child welfare agencies investigate them.


The legacy of the child welfare system lies in the trauma it imposes on the families it claims to help. It leaves them to live in constant fear of the investigation and interrogation process and of the possibility that their children will be removed from the household. In some cases, the stress of the process itself has caused parents to lose their jobs, exacerbating their already precarious economic status.

Children who are removed from their families experience intense feelings of abandonment and helplessness. They experience high rates of depression, suicidal ideation, and trouble sleeping. Long-term, these children are more likely to enter the criminal justice system.

The child welfare agencies my family interacted with never helped to improve our conditions — they only forestalled it by preventing my parents from maintaining stable employment amid their investigation process. To actually help children experiencing poverty, policy makers must end family surveillance. This requires repealing the mandatory reporting laws which pit teachers, doctors, therapists, and other support workers against the families that go to them for support. Further, they must place limits on child neglect investigations, mandating that social workers help families find resources that alleviate housing, transportation, and income issues — not punish them for their conditions. Removing a child from the home should occur only when the child is in immediate danger of harm, acknowledging the traumatic effects of family separation.


A decade after my family’s foreclosure, I still feel a familiar terror when someone knocks at my front door. My body stiffens, my heart races, and I look for a way out even though there is no danger. The next generation of children deserve better from a system that is supposed to protect them.

Timothy Scalona is a Suffolk University law student and board member of the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute.